cleaning and class

This post was inspired by an ongoing discussion of the division of household labor that’s been going on over at Half-Changed World.

Landisdad and I are both slobs. It’s not that we never clean, it’s just that we don’t do it every day, and we tend to not put things away after we use them, so our house is always filled with clutter. Before we had kids, this wasn’t really a problem–we would neaten up our apartment every weekend, and while the overall state of things might be cluttery, it was a sort of neat clutter. We’d clean the bathrooms every other week or so, and the kitchen too. We never lived anyplace really big, so most of our clutter problem revolved around the fact that we always had more stuff (particularly books and papers) than we had room to store.

When we moved back to the East Coast from California right before the Bee was born, we moved into yet another apartment. We lived with a sun porch that was full of boxes of books for over a year, until we bought our house. And when we first bought our house, we were overwhelmed by the amount of space we suddenly had. All the bookcases fit! And we could buy more bookcases! And another couch, too! And a dining room table! But we still didn’t solve our clutter problem, because now we had all this baby stuff, too.

Eventually, we gave in to the clutter. While both of us are adults that don’t want to spend more cleaning than we have to, we are also both people who don’t like work that feels pointless. And it’s hard not to feel pointless when you spend an hour or two cleaning the family room, and by the end of the day, it’s full of toys and books again.

I tend to get highly motivated to clean when we’re having people over, or something like that. What I forget is that for people who don’t know us well, our house still looks messy even when it’s clean (by my standards). We still have piles of papers on every available surface–they’re just in neat piles. We still have funky bookcases with old toys stuck on them. We still have furtniture that doesn’t match, and weird, radical posters on the walls. Our house looks like the office of a stereotypical absent-minded professor. Possibly a professor of political science.

Both landisdad’s mother and mine have, on occasion, commented on the general disorder in which we live. My mom, for example, famously cleaned our entire house on the day that the Potato was born. This included things like cleaning the oven, washing out the refrigerator, and opening all the vents to clean out our ductwork, while my MIL and the Bee looked on in horror at the amount of cat fur that was built up inside. I think it was a kind of passive-aggressive revenge on my mom’s part–she was mad that I had asked my MIL to come in for the birth, too, and she took it out on me by cleaning my house. My MIL, on the other hand, offered to pay for us to have a house cleaner.

But as much as I hate cleaning, I will never hire someone to clean my house. To me, it would be a betrayal of the many women who have worked as janitors, cleaners, and housekeepers that I have worked with as an organizer. It would put me in the employer class. It might be a giant hypocrisy on my part–after all, even if I don’t actually employ a housecleaner, I am affluent enough to afford one. Is there really that big a difference?

I say, yes. Even if my cleaning is rare and half-assed, it’s still mine. My cleaning skills may not be up to my mother’s par, but I learned them from her, and I will teach them to my children. I don’t want them to learn that having money exempts you from doing things that you consider unpleasant.

And let me just add, for the record, that landisdad mopped the kitchen floor last night while I sat on the couch and ate bonbons. (Well, okay, it was actually a yogurt smoothie)


August 6, 2005. politically motivated, thoughtful parenting.


  1. chip replied:

    I’ve missed out on the whole debate (having been away), but I’m with you in terms of cleaning philosophy (and results…) as well as on hiring help to clean, for many of the same reasons you list.

    One thing we do is make sure we have company at least twice a year so that we have to organize our clutter (and sweep and even, once a year or so, wetmop) the house. And make sure the kids help because it comes with being part of a family.

  2. Ashley replied:

    I do both! I do my best to keep it clean. Every once in a while, I’ll have someone come in and help me get it the rest of the way (usually before something happens here at the house, ie: family gathering).

    As to the clutter, I’ve been getting rid of most of ours. Or if I can’t get rid of it, putting it in storage. Then when we get a bigger house, I can spread my clutter out better so that it doesn’t look like as much clutter. 😉

  3. Jessica replied:

    Interesting post. We’re the same way with respect to the clutter issue. It drives my husband crazy (although he contributes as much if not more to the clutter than I do) but I can live with it most of the time. Like you, I can’t stand spending hours cleaning only to have the room become a mess in minutes.

    As for hiring someone to clean – I can understand where you’re coming from as a union organizer. For me personally, it’s a matter of paying someone a fair price for a service they provide. We’ve had the same cleaning woman, Carmen, for five years now (she has had three different partners clean with her during that time). They come twice a month and do the heavy cleaning – especially the bathrooms. Carmen has sometimes brought her children with her when they have a day off of school. Although I wouldn’t say she’s like a part of the family, I do like her and trust her and my kids really like her – she’s been with us since Meredith was born. I treat her with respect and kindness. In no way do I feel that paying her to clean my house is lording anything over her. By the same token, I have no problem paying for massages, pedicures – the works. To me, that’s no different than paying someone to cut my hair. It’s part of taking care of myself and, again, paying someone the going rate for a service they provide.

    If you treat people with respect – no matter their “station” in life, you should have no reason to feel guilty that you can afford some luxuries.

  4. Suzanne replied:

    I’ve wavered about the housecleaning help issue, and, for now at least, I’ve come down on the same side you’ve chosen. (Reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed helped me solidify that decision!) I even feel guilty about being in such a privileged position for outside cleaning help to be an option.

    So, like you and your husband, I tend to give up on the clutter fight unless company is about the descend. The people who can see my house in its unadulterated state are polite enough to refrain from commenting.

    (What a great blog you have, by the way!)

  5. Desperate To Be a Housewife replied:

    While playing Balderdash (or a similar game) about 10 years ago, I learned that “to run around the house cleaning and tidying quickly before guests arrive” actually has a name…it is “scurry-funge.”

    Now, when I know someone is coming over soon, I run around the house doing a scurry-funge!

  6. RainbowMomma replied:

    I hate cleaning too. Mostly because it takes my time away from my family, not really because I detest the chore itself. I just need a Rosie – the housecleaning robot from the Jetson’s. Or a 25th hour in my day. LOL!

  7. Alexandra replied:

    I have to agree with Jessica. When I first read the post and the discussion that ensued I have to confess I wasn’t too sure what to think. Having grown up in Brazil where most people make ends meet as part of an informal labour force and hired labour is part of everyday life, my family always had a live-in maid and often a full-time babysitter when my brothers and I were young. That does not mean, however, that my mom spent her days in luxury just relaxing or “lorded” over themñ she always followed the rule that you have to know how to do it yourself before you can ask someone else to do it for you and most often she spent the day helping the maid with the heavier chores. While the maid was cleaning the bedrooms my mom would be handwashing all the clothes before putting them in the washing machine (many Brazilians find the washing machine does not do a good job in washing the clothes properly – standards down there are pretty tough) or cooking all our meals from scratch. She certainly never exploited any of the people who worked for her and always paid them well. She knew her standards were high and was always willing to help so things could get done.

    I now live in Canada, where I occasionaly hire someone to clean my house twice a month. My husband is constantly teasing me for clearing the clutter and organizing things the day before the cleaner comes, he says he never heard of cleaning before the cleaner comes. I don’t have a problem in paying someone to help me keep my place clean. She offered her service to me and named the price. I don’t see the difference between that and paying for any other service. I certainly don’t see her as inferior or as someone I can boss around.

  8. comfort addict replied:

    Mrs. CA and I do have a housecleaner come in once every two weeks. She’s a solo act (not part of a team of Molly or Merry or Mixed-Up Maids). One interesting side benefit of this (perhaps the main benefit) is that it forces Mrs. CA and I to de-clutter at least once every two weeks.

  9. Elizabeth replied:

    We don’t have a housecleaner now, but we’ve had at times in the past, and I don’t quite get the argument that it’s inherently immoral to hire someone to clean your house.

    Assuming you pay someone decent wages (e.g. don’t hire Merry Maids or exploit an illegal immigrant), why is it worse to hire someone to mop your living room than to hire someone to care for your child, or fix your car, or revise your resume?

    I know someone through an online community who works as a self-employed housecleaner, and she says it’s a way for her to feed her kids without having to deal with a boss. The only problem is she doesn’t think she can continue much longer because it’s physically demanding.

    I heard the president of HERE give a great speech a while ago about how 70 years ago, everyone thought of coal mining and factory work as inherently shitty jobs — they were brutally dangerous and didn’t pay well. Because of the success of unions, they’re less dangerous, and pay well, and are thought of as good jobs. Similarly, he argues that there’s nothing inherently lousy about working as a hotel maid — and in Las Vegas, where all those jobs are unionized, they pay family-sustaining wages and people line up for them.

  10. landismom replied:

    Suzanne, yes, I think the Ehrenreich book is very convincing on this too.

    Well, I don’t think I’ve made the statement that it is immoral (generally) to hire someone to do your housework. I’m saying that for me, personally, because of the population of women in which I am an organizer, it would make me extremely uncomfortable.

    I think that anyone is challenged to have solidarity with a group of people whom they employ–whether that is a large group of workers or a single employee–the boss/worker relationship is one that is intrinsically adversarial. And while it’s true that unionized housekeeping in a hotel is much more of a family-sustaining job than non-unionized housekeeping, it is very different than cleaning houses for a living.

    Ultimately, though, this (for me) comes down to a parenting decision. I want to raise kids that are able to clean their own toilets, do their own laundry, cook their own meals. I want them to be independent, so they have more choices when it comes time for them to make choices. If my daughter or son make the decision to hire help as adults, I want them to make that decision out of desire, not need.

  11. Sandra replied:

    I don’t see what’s so bad about housecleaning that makes it wrong to hire someone to do it. We hire someone to maintain our lawn, clean our house, do our taxes, install our new garbage disposal, sand our floors, and paint. When we had less money we did all these things ourselves. I don’t think housecleaning is so vile a job that hiring someone is exploitation.

    Even though I disagree with your take on housecleaners, I find I can relate to your qualms. I would never hire someone to give me a massage, manicure, pedicure, or wax. To me, that seems like lording it over another person. On an intellectual level, I realize there’s nothing wrong with it (after all, I use the services of dental hygienists and gynecologists), but on a gut level it just feels wrong to me. Maybe the way you feel about hiring housecleaners is similar to the feeling I have about hiring personal groomers.

    Plus, if I got a pedicure, I wouldn’t be able to sit here and pick the dead skin off my heels while I read blogs.

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